Sunday, April 09, 2006

Jesus and Taxes: The Options

(Prologue to this series here.)

Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a messianic claimant, "King of the Judeans", and the gospel of Luke preserves a charge that he opposed paying taxes to Caesar (Lk. 23:2a). But for centuries Christians have maintained that Jesus condoned paying tribute, and the passage of Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26 couldn’t be clearer. When asked by a group of Herodians and Pharisees whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes, Jesus replied: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." But this answer isn’t clear at all, for it begs the question. Just what is Caesar's? What is God's? And even if one should give Caesar tribute, does that mean he has the right to demand it in the first place?

Let's begin with a survey of scholarly opinion. The following diversity alone shows how hard it is to unravel Jesus' answer. On a sliding scale, (1) is the strongest "yes", (6) the strongest "no", in answer to the question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"

Jesus' answer, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God’s", was...

1. A distinction between religion and politics, implying that Caesar’s taxes were lawful and should be paid. Jesus wasn't trying to liberate the promised land but to transform the individual heart. And while he opposed exploitation of the poor, he identified the problem not in sociopolitical structures but in individuals. (Martin Hengel, Victory over Violence, pp 1, 47-48.)

2. An enigma which deliberately left the issue unresolved. Jesus had fun teasing people’s minds and making them think for themselves. He wanted people to decide on their own if Caesar and God were compatible. On top of this, he "probably slipped the coin into his purse while they were haggling over what he told them." (Robert Funk, The Five Gospels, pp 102, 236, 379, 526.)

3. A cryptic way of saying that Caesar's taxes were lawful and should be paid, as long as this didn't conflict with duty to God. People owed their entire allegiance to God -- for they were created in his image (Gen 1-2) as much as the coins were created in Caesar's -- and they could acknowledge the legitimacy of Caesar’s taxes only after considering their duty to God. (David Ball, "What Jesus Really Meant by 'Render to Caesar'", Bible Review, April 2003, pp 15-17).

4. A paradoxical command to revolt and pay taxes at the same time. Jesus was protesting both against Caesar as a false lord and against tax-evading revolutionaries. His punchline meant: "Pay back Caesar as he deserves, and give God the divine honor claimed blasphemously by Caesar." In so doing he was implying that tax-evading revolutionaries were the true compromisers with Rome. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp 502-507.)

5. A veiled way of saying that Caesar's taxes were unlawful but should be paid "with contempt" in order to rid the land of idolatry. Jesus' punchline meant: "Give Caesar back his filthy coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land." People should throw money back in Caesar's face, so to speak, and pay their taxes as an act of resistance. But Caesar had no valid claim to taxing people, even if he was entitled to his blasphemous currency. (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, pp 225-232. R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, pp 63-68.)

6. A veiled way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful and should not be paid. Jesus’ punchline meant: "Give Caesar nothing, God everything." Jesus believed no one could serve two masters at the same time (Mt. 6:24/Lk. 16:13) and followed the early Israelite tradition that since God was king, no one else could be (Judg. 8:22-23; I Sam 8:4-7; Hos. 8:4). Jesus' question, "Whose image and inscription is this?", was a ploy targeting the possession of something idolatrous rather than what actually belonged to Caesar. (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 306-317. Richard Rohrbaugh, email correspondence.)

Which of the above interpretations is most plausible? Leave your vote in the comments section if you wish, and in the next post we'll examine the likelihood of each.

22 Comments:

Blogger Doug said...

Personally I'm between 2 & 3. That is, I recognise an unresolved and deliberate ambiguity in the saying, that leaves open the question of what exactly is Caesar's in the light of what I take to be Jesus' belief that everything is God's. This could, of course, (as in the Johannine presentation of Jesus before Pilate) even include Caesar's authority to collect taxes coming from God.
I doubt that we should read a whole theology into an exchange designed to show Jesus' wit as much as his wisdom. It's as much an escape clause as a legal clause!
Finally, I think that Hengel and Horsley both special pleas in the light of two opposed overall views I find unconvincing: the former Germanic Protestant individualism, the latter an unreconstructed social revolutionary who no doubt foreknew Marx. And Wright -- well, like Wright himself, Wright's Jesus always manages to have his cake and eat it too!

4/09/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

And Wright -- well, like Wright himself, Wright's Jesus always manages to have his cake and eat it too!

I have to agree with your last sentence, Doug. Wright not only has his cake and eats it, but with an icing of double-speak. More on this later.

4/09/2006  
Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

I'm with Doug. Offhand, "2" is probably almost right. What Jesus seems to be really doing is giving a non-answer answer. He avoids appearing to side with the Romans while not overtly going against them. It occurs to me also that Jesus probably considered the Romans' days to be numbered, so there wasn't much point in picking a fight with them over taxes.

4/09/2006  
Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

Has to be (5), which explains why Jesus appeals to the "eikon" on the obverse side of the king. Give the pagan king back his pagan money! Gerd Theissen, Shadow of the Galilean, has a good take on this.

4/10/2006  
Blogger Chris Petersen said...

I would essentially agree with Doug. Perhaps Jesus, being caught between a rock and hardplace, simply needed a way out of his situation and so was deliberately ambiguous since not even he knew what he meant!

4/10/2006  
Anonymous Peter Milloy said...

Another possibility: "The coin has Caesar's image, so let him have it. The more important question is: What--or who--bears the image of God?" I.e., to whom will we give ourselves?

4/10/2006  
Anonymous Ralph Hitchens said...

I believe Hengel & Ball (1 & 3) are most correct, and in line with Jesus' statement that his kingdom "is not of this world."

4/10/2006  
Blogger Paul said...

When you ask here about meaning, do you mean to divorce that from the question of how it was heard by his audience or not?

Not that that gets me any closer to answering your question. All those options sound at least plausible to me. The question (for me) becomes, "what other background do I need to process so that I can understand Jesus answer the same way that his audience would have."

For all the digs at Wright, at least he did a good job at pointing out THAT there is a highly politcal nature to this exchange.

4/10/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

When you ask here about meaning, do you mean to divorce that from the question of how it was heard by his audience or not?

I'm asking what Jesus himself meant. No doubt he was heard differently, and of course the charge preserved in Lk 23:2a could be either a fabrication or based on misunderstanding. I think it's essentially accurate, as I will explain in the next post.

4/10/2006  
Blogger Chris Weimer said...

You know my answer already, or you should. I would go for a combination of 3 and 6. Although they may appear to be mutually exclusive, actually they're complimentary.

My studies have led me to the idea that Jesus was wholly Jewish, and thought to be the Messiah, he needed to purge the land and return it to "his people".

However, I don't think he was that fanatical. Perhaps, like Socrates, he didn't want to bring arms to the state, but bring about a spiritual revolution instead.

That he was crucified as a criminal by the Romans is near undisputed. For what crime? Insurgents and insurrection leaders were the most crucified. So it makes sense that Jesus was doing something illegal.

By "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's" he's actually saying that sure, give the money to Caesar - it's impure to have it here in the holy land, but Caesar needs to leave the land too. Caesar needs to leave the holy land and take his money with him so we can have it back. This would also explain how he became associated with the poor - a man who refuses Roman money wouldn't be too rich, now would he?

4/11/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

You know my answer already, or you should.

Chris, the answers from our "unpapal conclave" are more unanimous than I expected. More on that later -- when I can figure out how I want to present our findings!

I would go for a combination of 3 and 6. Although they may appear to be mutually exclusive, actually they're complimentary.

It sounds to me like you're advocating a version of (5).

4/11/2006  
Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Yeah, it's definitely a variation of (5), but I wouldn't suggest that Jesus actually wanted them to "pay" Caesar anything. Paying taxes would be an advocation of actually having Roman money in the first place.

4/11/2006  
Anonymous Ned Netterville said...

The answer is definitely #6, except that there was nothing "veiled" in Jesus' answer. Jesus said, give Ceasar what is (bleongs to) Caesar's--nothing more, nothing less. That is in exact accord with God the Father's commandment, Thou shall not steal. According to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to exactly nothing, unless one is in possession of something belonging to him. The decietful spies who were trying to "trap" Jesus were confused and confounded by their own dishonesty and Jesus' plain and truthful statement in answer to their question. When they reported his words to the Parisees who had sent them, the Pharisees understood Jesus, that he had convicted himself of sedition against Rome by opposing the payment of Caesar's tax. And that is exactly what they charged him with doing when they dragged him before Pilate a day or two later: "We found this man...forbidding the payment of taxes to the emperor." (Lk 23:1-2) For a thorough analysis of everything Jesus ever did or said relative to taxes, visit the website http://www.jesus-on-taxes.com, and download the essay JESUS OF NAZARETH, ILLEGAL TAX PROTESTER.

4/17/2006  
Blogger Ralph said...

The answer is obvious. The question was "IOs it LAWFUL to pay taxes to Caesar. Certainly it was lawful by Caesar's law, which left no doubt. But obviously the Pharisees referred to God's law in order to trap Jesus.

Jesus showed them a coin and asked "Whose image is on thios coin?"

This question, related to the Pharisees' question tied four subjects together: law, taxes, money, and images.

Is there a law relating to images?
Yes, the second commandment, which told Israel not to make gravren images nor bow down to them. They were not to serve them, period.

Consequently, by God's law, they were to give nothing to Caesar and all to God.

The Pharisees recognized Jesus' trap instantly and dared not agree or disagree, because to answer would have gotten them in the same trouble with Rome or the Sanhedrin.

5/02/2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think three seems to make the most sense to me. it seems like Jesus didn't just mean taxes but laws as a whole like he was saying obey the laws as long as it doesnt interfere with serving the Lord. but i could be wrong.

8/16/2007  
Blogger Kingsdawter said...

Give to Caesar what is legally his. Give God what is legally His. Everything is legally God's.
After studying our Federal Income tax laws we as individuals are not required by law to pay income taxes. Corporations are by law required to pay Income Taxes. Therefore, as an individual, give nothing to Caesar.

11/27/2008  
Blogger Bill Threlkeld said...

We must not avoid the setting.
Jesus asked "Whose picture is on this coin?" The answer is "Caesar's"
Then I can just see and hear Jesus saying "What is a good Jewish boy like you doing with a picture of Caesar in your pocket anyway? Get rid of it. Give it to Caesar."

12/27/2008  
Anonymous Wendy Ashworth said...

I have only a simple statement to the scripture of "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's",

Doesn't Caesar himself belong to God, therefore what exactly belongs to Caesar.

7/26/2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of the bible teaches about spiritual reality through allegory. Spiritual allegory is not something that everyone can understand. This is pointed out in a number of different ways. It is indicated whenever the bible says something to the effect of “let he who has ears hear.” It is pointed out when of the straight way and narrow gate it says, “few there be that find it.” It is pointed out when Jesus says to the disciples that every teaching given to the masses is like the parables.
This leads to a situation where much of the bible has three simultaneous levels of meaning although most people are only able to see the first two. In some cases such as “thou shalt not kill” either the first or most literal meaning is absent or you could view the first two levels of meaning as being identical. (I’m pretty sure that all ten commandments have meaning on the level of spiritual allegory, but I am only able to understand a couple of them.)
In the case of “render to Caesar…” the first two levels are not identical. The first and most literal meaning is of paying tax to the particular ruler of that day and that nation, namely Caesar. The more general meaning is probably for those following the teachings of Jesus to comply with tax laws and probably governmental regulations in general (census laws, business licenses, or whatever), assuming I suppose, that there was not some greater reason in some particular situation, not to. This particular scripture to my mind clearly also has the level of meaning that I call “spiritual allegory.”
If you want to try and find this meaning for yourself I’ll cite a verse that I think has a similar allegorical teaching and then explain after that, so stop after the verse if you want to ponder it before reading what I think. It is the second sentence of this verse that I would particularly call your attention to.

Matthew 6:34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Evil here as almost everywhere in the bible just refers to anything of the earthly/material world. The more spiritually advanced we become, the less interaction with the material world we require, but it is my guess most everyone no matter how spiritually advanced, that is still in bodily form, must eat, answer the call of nature, and seek at least minimal shelter. Jesus is saying focus your heart, mind and soul on increasing your spiritual understanding, sure, take care of your bodily needs as they arise, but give them as little attention as you can, because they aren’t what is important.
In today’s society “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” is probably an awkward and confusing sentence, but I am very fond of it, probably because of how mysterious it was to me before its meaning was finally revealed.
Caesar, taxes, government regulations are clearly things of this material world. God just as clearly is of the spiritual realm. Jesus’ meaning on the level of spiritual allegory seems to me to be the same as the verse I quoted, give to the material world the things that you must, but give to God what is his, meaning all of your attention (heart, mind and soul) except for the little bit that your material survival requires.

4/27/2010  
Anonymous Paul F said...

I vote for number 2 or 3. Romans 13:7 "Pay to all what is due them--taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due." That is pretty clear that taxes are acceptable, and not sin or stealing. And Jesus told Peter to pay taxes, Jesus said to him. "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." Matthew 17:24-27

8/17/2010  
Blogger Bill Threlkeld said...

Jesus has to be recognized for his wit and sense of humor, and this (about the fish) is one of the best examples.
Bob Funk liked to say that Jesus was the first stand-up Jewish comedian.

8/17/2010  
Blogger Bill Threlkeld said...

Isn't it obvious that Jesus' real message was a veiled question?
"What's good Jewish boy like you doing carrying around a picture of Caesar anyway?"

8/17/2010  

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